Meet Sonja, Science Education Manager at MSHI

On the living room floor we carefully laid out decks of playing cards, creating a labyrinth of intersections, curves, dead ends, and cul de sacs that covered the carpet.  We added toy houses and cars; the community we built had a mixture of architectural and automotive styles, ranging from diecast Matchbox cars to the Flintstones toys from 1993 Happy Meals.  My sister and I were building our own world and from our birds’ eye view we built communities that became the setting for our playtime stories.

A little over 20 years later, I was in my first year as a year-round Mount St. Helens staff member in my former role as Science Education Coordinator.  I was tasked with creating an activity for 4th graders that aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards that we could use at the Science and Learning Center.  One of the key ideas in fourth grade earth science standards is that humans cannot stop natural hazards, but we can do things to reduce their impacts. 

This concept, alongside my love of being outdoors, is what brought me into the world of volcanology.  In my first year of college, I declared a major in physics.  I love learning about the connections and interactions that physics is all about, but I was left with a yearning for a career that would give me some time in the fresh air and under the open sky.  I took  a geology class and I was hooked.  There is no laboratory more delightfully complicated than the natural world, so the physics-loving part of my brain was excited as I romped around outcrops in western and central Pennsylvania during field trips.  Nature is messy and nature is interesting! Eventually going to grad school to study volcanoes, I gravitated towards complex computational modeling of pyroclastic flows, where I could merge earth science and physics.  Understanding the behavior of and modeling flows from volcanoes is part of how scientists determine where things could go when volcanoes erupt.  Consequently, this helps people understand where and how volcanoes could affect their community.  I decided that I wanted my career to be at the place where science and society intersect in this way.  Furthermore, I knew that I wanted the intersection to be 3-way: with education as the third arm.  Youth are the decision-makers of tomorrow and given the right tools, opportunity, and support,  can think deeply and problem-solve. 

Mount St. Helens is a place where science and society intersect.  Individuals, organizations, and agencies can all take actions in preparation for future events to help people stay safe in the face of natural hazards.  Scientists watch the volcano for signs and symptoms of approaching volcanic activity.  Scientists study volcanoes to better understand how to interpret these signs and symptoms.  Emergency planners practice disaster response during tabletop roleplay exercises.  Among individuals, memories and impressions of past eruptions linger and are told to friends and families and are shared in writing and visual art.  Secondary effects of eruptions can last long after eruption day, when ash might harm a farmer’s crops or painful memories persist in the minds of those that experienced eruptions.  The web of connections between the science of natural hazards  and the people who experience them personally, professionally, or both, are broad and deep.  People around the world know of Mount St. Helens. Some people hold Mount St. Helens deep in their hearts through eruptive memories or childhood memories at Spirit Lake.  Mount St. Helens is a special place.

In working on a new activity, I was reminded of my own childhood memory.  As my sister and I laid out the cards and saw our world from the birds’ eye view, we saw how roads were connected.  Where we imagined natural features, we saw the connections the community had to their place.  Yet, I just thought I was having fun with our imagination playtime.  In the “Hazard Mapping” activity that we have today, students design their own communities (dry erase markers on a laminated cartoon landscape), most often in ways both serious and silly.  Students will usually decide that their community needs schools and clinics, but there may also be cat museums or a waterpark with water slides coming from the top of the volcano.  After they design their community, they are presented with a “hazard map,” showing the areas where scientists think could be affected by volcanic mudflows (lahars).  If, for example, there is a bridge in these areas, like in the Toutle River of the Mount St. Helens 1980 eruption, that bridge could be destroyed.  Students identify potential problems for their community should lahars course through valleys near or within their community.  They redesign.  They solve the problems.  They roleplay civic engagement and using science as the basis for decision-making. They, in a small way, put into action the idea that is so important for both the world of volcanology and their own science education: humans cannot stop natural hazards, but we can do things to reduce their impacts

The pandemic has paused our in-person field trips.  I miss the noise and energy in the Science and Learning Center or along the trails when we have 100+ students there for a day program.  I miss seeing the cartoon character pillows, sparkly backpacks, and lone socks that are strewn over the floor of our overnight programs.  I miss waking up in the early morning to rise and cook breakfast for the groups, with those special moments of quiet as starlight transitions to a morning glow and the herd of elk may be in the parking lot during the period of morning quiet.  There is a lot that I miss about in-person field trips; yet, I know they will come back and when that happens, they will be even better than ever.  

In the meantime, I am grateful for the silver lining; we have created resources to bring Mount St. Helens to remote and hybrid classrooms. I’ve stayed busy, working alongside fabulous coworkers to adapt education programs and build the future of MSHI’s education programs - first with Volcano Tuesdays, then with developing the Sediment on the Move curriculum, and now- with our virtual field trips.  The Sediment on the Move curriculum builds on the same idea as the Hazard Mapping activity; students create their own communities and then roleplay as city council members to explore and problem-solve issues for their community as they communicate with others. 

This brings me back to why I first latched on to volcanology in the first place -  how the intersection of science and society can help people in some way.  It can, and that is what we are doing even throughout the pandemic.  Because of our curriculum, family members are sharing their stories of the eruption with the young members of their family.  Youth are getting outside and making connections to what they learned in our programs to what they see in their neighborhood.  Teachers are getting resources to help them leverage valuable classroom time with our Sediment on the Move curriculum where they can teach science, language arts, and social studies all within the same unit.  Students are making real connections to science.  Our resources are making it easier for teachers to get their students excited and engaged over Zoom.  I am proud to work for the Mount St. Helens Institute, now more than ever as we adapt and create ways for people to be inspired by and learn from Mount St. Helens, wherever they are in the world.

By Sonja Melander